Romanland, Ethnicity, and Science Fiction

I’m running a little mini-seminar (not even a normal-sized mini-seminar!) on Late Antique and Byzantine history and hagiography this fall for a single student in the English department (“o tempora! o mores!” as the kids say). As I fumble around trying to get up to speed with my own reading in this area, I figured Anthony Kaldellis’s recent book Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium (Harvard 2019) was as good as place as any to start in no small part because he had only recently prepared translations of a group of 9th and 10th Byzantine saints from Greece.

Kaldellis’s book has been out for long enough now that it’s seen any number of incisive and thoughtful reviews. So, I won’t bore you with another by someone who has been at the margins of the field for over a decade. Instead, I’ll offer a few observations on points that spoke to me.

1. Ethnicity, Armenians, and a Postscript. One of the most intriguing things about the book is the personal postscript appended to the end of chapter 5. Chapter 5 was a systematic critique of the what Kaldellis has called the “Armenian Fallacy,” which he defined as the tendency to search for and ultimately find Armenians throughout Byzantine history. Kaldellis argues that many of the individuals identified as Armenians or individuals of Armenian descent had assimilated into the Roman Empire to such a degree that they no longer possessed any meaningful Armenian identity. In other instances, he argued that in the discipline’s zeal to find Armenians in the highest ranks of the Byzantine state we’ve simply misidentified individuals as being of Armenian descent who were not. 

Kaldellis makes clear in his postscript that this chapter was not meant as a specific critique of Armenian scholars, who have historically led the charge to identify ethnic Armenians in Byzantine texts, but as a broader critique of the discipline’s overzealous efforts to identify particular ethnicities without the Byzantine state while overlooking the overwhelming evidence for individuals asserting their Roman identity and ethnicity. The personal postscript is a good indication of how high the stakes are in this work. As Kaldellis argues throughout the discourse surrounding ethnicity in the Byzantine world is not at all separate from efforts of 19th and 20th century nationalists to use their ties to Byzantine history to justify their cultural and political autonomy. In other words, Kaldellis, a Greek scholar who is very aware of the ties between Byzantine history and Greek irredentist movements in the 19th and early 20th century (and their tragic outcomes), anticipated that Armenian scholars and nationalists might see his critique of the “Armenian Fallacy” as an attack on their ethnic and national identities. This seems like a justifiable anxiety on Kaldellis’s part as not a week goes by without some article appearing on the status of Armenian churches within the territories contested between Armenia and its neighbor Azerbaijan.

For Byzantinists, efforts to excavate national histories from the long-lived Roman Empire are not just pious mythologies with a certain outdated charm, but ongoing concerns that echo in contemporary geopolitics. 

2. Texts, Archaeology, and Material Culture. It would be unfair to say that Kaldellis has never been a particularly interested in or engaged with archaeology. After all, he has a book on the history of the Parthenon in the Medieval period and an early work that considers both the history and material culture of Byzantine Lesvos. That all said, he knows the limits of his expertise and doesn’t dive into the archaeology of ethnicity in this book. This is probably not a bad decision, but, if he did engage more fully with this discourse, I think there would be meaningful overlap with his work (and I suspect strongly that he knows that!). 

For example, the effort to find Slavs in the Peloponnesus on the basis of their ceramics, grave goods, and architecture has proven to be complicated. This is not because no Slavs existed in Greece, but because the Slavic “invasion” or migration was most likely gradual or episodic and involved considerable intermixing with the Roman population who had long lived in Central and Southern Greece. The presence of “Slavic” objects – whether hand-made pots or the infamous belt buckles – may well represent groups who had certain artistic and craft traditions, but  linking this neatly with ethnicity has proven pretty challenging especially as “Slavic” material often appears alongside material typically associated with long-standing Roman traditions. Whether this suggests the emergence of hybrid identities that shift constantly to leverage advantages associated with one or another group or the assimilation of the ethnically Slavic with their Roman neighbors remains a challenging question to explore and would, I suspect, complicate some of Kaldellis arguments. At the same time, he is right in observing that integration ultimately does produce a population that represents itself consistently as Roman well into the post-Byzantine period. How this transformation occurs, on the ground, is probably something best studied at the ground (or even subsurface) level!

3. Ethnicity in Science Fiction. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first two books of Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series. The books is set against the backdrop of the massively powerful Teixcalaanli empire which rules thousands of planets linked by jump gates. One of the main characters is Mahit Dzmare an ambassador from the tiny, but independent Lsel Station which drifts along just outside the borders of Teixcalaani space. Large parts of the narrative involve the negotiations of ethnic differences between Dzmare and her Teixcalaani liaison Three Seagrass.

What makes this relevant for Kaldellis’s book is that Martine was trained as a Byzantinist and studied, in particular, diplomatic and cultural relations between Byzantium and the Armenian Kingdom of Ani (Bagratid Armenia). This got me wondering whether her novels could function as an intriguing fictional cypher for understanding cultural relation during the Byzantine period. Her books are certainly more engaging reads than the average monograph on Byzantine studies and allow for Martine to explore in the ways in which groups defined themselves in relation to one another in both more overt and more subtle ways. The ability to explore the inner life of her characters, for example, allows her to consider the way in which individuals can to realize and negotiate personal identities in relation to “the other.” Martine does a really great job demonstrating how individuals felt ethnic differences and reading this against Kaldellis’s book which is naturally more interested in groups and texts than individuals.

In any event, Kaldellis’s book is worth reading (as is Martine’s Teixcalaan series). Both make compelling arguments for how societies and individuals constructed their identity in relation to “the other” (variously defined).  

Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley

My blog is a bit late this morning because I was finishing an almost final draft of my paper on the Chrysochou Valley. It comes in just under the 6000 word limit (with the abstract and citations). I’m pretty happy with it. 

Here’s the abstract:


This contributionconsiders the long Late Antiquity in the areas of EF2 and EF1 at the site ofPolis (ancient Arsinoe). By exploring the fuzzy edges of our chronologicalunderstanding of the Roman and Late Roman periods on the island, this articleexpands the length of Late Antiquity. The changes in the area of EF2demonstrate that the work of lengthening Late Antiquity on Cyprus may beginwith exploring the Romanization of the urban landscape in the century after apossible 2nd-century earthquake. At the same time, the ever later drift of ourceramic chronologies has required us to decouple episodes of destruction,abandonment, and recovery from major historic events such as Arab raids orbroader narratives of decline. The comparison of the ceramic assemblage fromthe small suburban site of EF1 to that associated with the second phase of theSouth Basilica suggests that the reconstruction, expansion, and elaboration ofthat building may well date to 8th century. This suggests that patterns ofurbanism established sometime after the 2nd century AD continued for over fivecenturies along the northern edge of the city of Polis. 

And here’s the paper itself.

Writing a Site Guide for Polis (Part 1)

One of this summer’s projects is to write up a few sections that contribute to a new guidebook for the site of Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus. The site is currently undergoing adaptation to accommodate visitors in a more structured and informed way and the site guide will be part of this larger undertaking. Fortunately, we have a great writing team and I’ll collaborate with Scott Moore and Amy Papalexandrou to describe some sections of the sites and Joanna Smith is gamely marshaling others to bring this entire thing together.

This morning, I thought I’d prepare a draft describing the site of EF1. It’s a fun challenge because not only is it visible from the main road connecting the village of Polis to a popular beach, but it also is only partially excavated and its function is uncertain. Fortunately, I only need to produce 850 words so this is not a major component to the guide, but since it is a site that attracts some curiosity (and one that my colleague Scott Moore and I have worked on lately), I want to try to introduce casual visitors to the complexities of archaeology at Polis.

So here goes:

There are a small pair of rooms situated on the east side of the road from the village of Polis to beachside camping site. The site is known as “E.F1” based on its designation in the Princeton excavation grid system and it stands on the edge of the coastal ridge overlooking the flatter plains and the sea. It seems possible that an ancient road ascended from the coast in this area. 

The walls visible at the site represent three different Late Antique phases dating to the 6th and 7th centuries. The remains of a doorway facing the road is part of the earliest phases at the site and probably dates to the 6th century AD. It provides access to an east-west hallway that is visible to the east of the door, but is now interrupted by a later, north-south wall. 

The north-south wall is part of the second phase at the building as is the east-west wall visible on the northern side of of the site. A doorway preserved in this wall stands at a significantly higher elevation than the door near the road indicating that it is almost certainly later. It appears that the drain running through the eastern part of the building dates to this phase as well. The presence of a drain here suggests a renewed interest in controlling the flow of water down the coastal ridge and hints at changes to water management in the ancient city upslope. It may be that erosion at the site led the builders to reinforce the structure by thickening the walls. A similar strategy of wall thickening is visible at the South Basilica and in Medieval churches throughout the area. Despite these efforts, it appears that the building collapsed at some point in the 7th century. It may have been already abandoned as the drain was clogged with debris and a layer of rubble, including a well-preserved glass window, covered floors that were largely devoid of artifacts.   

With few artifacts associated with the building’s use, it is difficult to understand its function in antiquity. The excavators found a significant quantity of slag during their excavations that they originally speculated might reflect an industrial function for the building. Most of this slag, however, appeared in the lowest levels of excavation and probably represents industrial activities in this region prior to this building’s construction. In fact, early maps of the area show a “heap of slag” that likely dates to antiquity and the presence of workshops in Roman levels surrounding the South Basilica likely accounts for the presence of industrial debris in the area. Of course, this does not provide us with any particular insights into the function of the Late Roman phase of the building. The well-preserved window glass and the nicely designed doorway, however, hints that these rooms may have been part of a domestic structure which would have been well-situated to catch seas breezes and to have a clear view of the coast.

At some point after the building’s abandonment and collapse, a woman was buried along the south side of the site immediately to the east of the large north-south wall. She was buried with a lead sealing inscribed with the name Stephanos, a local aristocrat known from other seals dating generally to the early 8th century. The sealing presumable sealed a document of some importance to the deceased and since the seal must predate the burial, it suggests a mid-8th century date for the abandonment of the site. It may be that this burial along with those surrounding the North and South basilicas mark the transformation of the northern side of the city into a cemetery precinct. 

Three Things Thursday: Blogging, Archaeology and Climate, and Poetry

I’ve reached the point of the summer when all my projects seem to melt together into chaotic ball of deadlines, half-met expectations, and long bikes rides. Needless to say, it has not been very productive.

At the same time, I am having fun thinking about things to blog about and then stretching my morning blogging time well into my second cup of coffee. So this morning, I have three things that might, someday, mature into full blog posts.

Thing the First

Years ago (let’s say 2008), I wrote a piece on the archaeology of blogging (and blogging archaeology) for Archaeology magazine’s website. I returned to some of the ideas in that article with a piece co-written by Andrew Reinhard for Internet Archaeology which considered the place of blogs in the academic ecosystem.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how blogging has changed over the past five years. When I started blogging, I imagined an audience who would be interested in understanding how the [academic] sausage was made. Along those lines, my blog would serve as part idea box, part academic scratch pad, and part preview channel for my various research interests. At my most optimistic, I considered it to be living supplement to my academic CV (with occasional dog photo!) and as a way to move back the veil on how academics produce new knowledge. In any event, it may be that this was an optimistic program from the start, but I continue to think that it has relevance. I suspect that this is even more true for today as the general public has become increasingly invested in understanding how scientific knowledge forms the basis for public policy, authority, and expertise.

That said, I can completely understand how my blog is not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, it seems like public scholarship has two main areas of emphasis. One is works that approach historical problems with a journalistic flair for narrative, description, and analysis. Ed Watt’s recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic fits this category as do works by the likes of Eric Cline or my colleague Eric Burin. These works have the potential to attract the elusive crossover audience that includes both academics and the general public and have emerged as a revenue stream for publishers and scholars alike. This is important at a time when library purchasing power is in decline and faculty salaries have tended to stagnate.

The other major strain in public scholarship, and one that has particular prominence in the blogging community, is politically engaged outreach. This involves writing — often for blogs, but also in more established publications — on both academic issues that have an impact on contemporary society and in efforts to demonstrate how the contemporary political discourse has had an impact on what we do as researchers. I find the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, and the folks who blog at places like Everyday Orientalism (and previously Eidolon) compelling and important voices. At the same time, I recognize that this kind of public outreach often puts you in the crosshairs of the political outrage machine on social media. On the other hand, their work also attracts significant positive attention from readers within and outside the academy and if the goal of public outreach is actually reaching the public, then these authors have succeeded in spades. 

That said, it is a very different kind of blogging than what I envisioned when I started my blog and one wonders whether the changing political and cultural economy of academia has fundamentally transformed the character of outreach and public oriented scholarship? 

Thing the Second

I really enjoyed this article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Karim Alizadeh, M. Rouhollah Mohammadi, Sepideh Maziar, and Mohmmad Feizkhah titled: “The Islamic Conquest or Flooding? Sasanian Settlements and Irrigation Systems Collapse in Mughan, Iranian Azerbaijan.” It is another in the recent gaggle of articles interested in considering the role of climate change in the transformation of settlement and activity in the ancient Mediterranean (broadly construed) landscape. Alizadeh and colleagues look at evidence for fortifications and irrigation systems in the Mughan Steppe region of the Azerbaijan-Iranian borderland.

They argue that the Sassanians constructed a complex network of irrigation canals throughout the region that only faltered as a result of two major flooding events in the 7th century. These floods cut down the Aras River bed making disrupting its relationship to the steppe’s irrigation network. These flooding events may well be connected to changes in climate and hydrology precipitated by the Late Antique Little Ice Age. The subsequent abandonment of settlement in the Mughan Steppe in the late 7th century, then, may not be related to the Muslim Conquests and the arrival of Muslim military forces in the world. Or, alternately, the faltering irrigation may have made the regional less resilient in the face of political and military challenges. 

This kind of work has had me thinking more carefully about the settlement change in Greece in the 7th century and the relationship between climate change, changes in economic structures, and the evident reorganization of Greek rural settlement. While the data that we have for the environmental conditions at the local level remains fragmentary and inconclusive, comparisons with other regions of the Mediterranean give us another reason to resist assuming that political and military events precipitated changes in the settlement and economy.   

Thing the Third

Do go and check out the North Dakota Quarterly blog today. I’ve posted a poem by John Walser titled “Chronoscope 181: And that spot.” It’s a great example of how poetry (and music!) can do things with time that we struggle to accomplish in the more linear world of academic prose. Plus, it’s a perfect poem to read heading into midsummer and thinking about how long days can slow down time and make even the chaotic disorganization of summer feel like something significant… 

Roman Seas

Over the weekend, I read Justin Leidwanger’s new book, Roman Seas: A Maritime Archaeology of Eastern Mediterranean Economies (2020). It’s a pretty good book that brings ship wreck data to bear on long-standing questions of regional and inter-regional trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Leidwanger’s focus on the Cilician coast and Cyprus make the book particularly useful for my work on that island and it was gratifying to see the work that I did with David Pettegrew and Scott Moore cited in footnotes! While other can quibble with our interpretation of the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, it’s harder to dismiss the data that our project produced and its contribution to the growing corpus of well-documented Late Roman sites in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levant. Leidwanger’s interest in similarly well-documented shipwrecks, including some that he documented himself, provides a offshore (or at very least near-shore) analog to expanding body of intensive survey data and well published (and quantifiable) excavation data from Cyprus, Cilicia, and the northeastern Levant. Whether this ever becomes “big data” of the kind that other social scientists have invested with such attention, remains hard to know especially considering the significant variation in methods and typologies across the region. That being said, there’s no doubt that evidence is piling up and almost begging for the kind of thoughtful interpretation offered in this book.

The book will reward some re-reading over the next few months and I try to come to terms with the scope of Leidwanger’s argument. For now, I’ll offer a few quick observations. 

The first few chapters of the book offers little new, but does provide a usual interpretative summary of the recent interest in regional analysis in the Eastern Mediterranean, the basic elements of Roman and Late Roman maritime technology, and the various ways in which terrestrial landscapes and maritime seascapes interact to produce distinct interpretative units. I have little doubt that these chapters will be see more than their share of citations among scholars interested in understanding the relationship between coastal sites, the sea, and connectivity. Leidwanger’s observations would be been very useful when I was muddling my way through my “Is Cyprus an Island?” paper last fall!

The heart of the book comes in the last 100 or so pages when Leidwanger introduces a corpus of 67 well documented shipwrecks from the Datça peninsula and the southern coast of Cyprus. These wrecks date to the Roman and Late Roman periods and appear to be representative of both a wider body of wrecks from well dated wrecks in the Eastern Mediterranean and present little to contradict trends in less carefully dated shipwreck sites in the same region.

This representative and relatively well documented assemblage of sites allows Leidwanger to produce a range of thoughtful arguments about regional and interregional connections. Leidwanger applies a two-level network analysis to these ships cargoes which largely consisted of amphora. One level of network analysis concentrates on the origins of the cargoes and the other incorporates the locations of the wrecks themselves. These two levels of analysis suggest shifts in the economic networks between the Romana and Late Roman period with the former centered on the Aegean and including greater connections to the Adriatic than the latter which centers on Cyprus and Cilicia and involves few ties to points further west. This coincides with Leidwangers interpretation of terrestrial finds from the central southern coast of Cyprus and the Datça peninsula in western Turkey and reinforces the idea that the links between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean weaken in the Late Roman period.

Leidwanger also contends that in the Late Roman period economic networks become more regional in general with smaller ships, smaller cargoes, and closer connections between ports. He argues that this reflects the increasingly “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity and the “gravitational pull” of larger regional centers and, in particular, the capital in Constantinople. The large-scale state influence over interregional exchange provided energy and connections to smaller-scale interregional exchange through processes that are not entirely clear.

I see no reason to disagree with Leidwanger’s arguments for Late Antique Cyprus. Indeed, the coastal site of Pyla-Koutsopetria seems to reached its peak economically during the 6th and early 7th century when imperial influence over large-scale exchange on Cyprus was at its peak. It is likewise intriguing to wonder whether the warehouses at the site of Dreamer’s Bay on the Akrotiri peninsula and at the site of Ay. Yiorgios-Peyias reflected the intensification of shorter distance regional trade or accommodations for longer distance interregional trade stimulated by the quaestura exercitus or the annona shipments to Constantinople. We argued that the massive quantity of Late Roman 1 amphora at Pyla-Koutsopetria may have reflected the use of this port as depot for the quaestura exercitus which did not necessarily flow through the major urban ports on Cyprus (e.g. Paphos, Salamis, or Kition). In our view, then, the long distance, administrative trade of the imperial command economy operated outside the typical routes of long-distance trade concentrated at major ports. This may reflect imperial efforts to develop unique infrastructure of warehouses and perhaps even agents and services designed to facilitate the movement of agricultural goods to the capital. 

This, of course, is all rather speculative on our part and does little to undermine Leidwanger’s broader observation that administrative trade on the interregional level shaped intraregional trade networks as ships acquired good at various ports on either their return journeys or as part of the process of moving good to regional entrepôts.

Leidwanger’s focus on transport amphora necessarily dictated his interest in agricultural goods. This undoubted constituted the bulk of ancient trade. It would be interesting, however, to compare, say, the distribution of Late Roman table wares in his case study regions. The persistence of African Red slip, for example, in certain areas of Cyprus well into Late Antiquity indicates that connections with the West were not entirely absent. It would have also been interesting to compare the relationship between economic zones and, say, ecclesiastic architecture to determine if the movement of bulk goods paralleled connections between construction crews, architects, or religious communities. If the connection between “microregions” often developed as forms of social insurance between communities whether other forms of social and cultural contact followed these routes and either made economic ties possible or reinforced them.

In short, Leidwanger’s book is a compelling body of evidence in support of a series of recent research questions focused on the relationships between Mediterranean “small places” over time. It’s a short, easy read that summarizes a good bit of specialized literature that might not be on every scholar’s regular reading list. It’s a good book and well worth the read.

Plague and Famine in Late Antiquity and Byzantium

Tomorrow I’m presenting in Prof. Sercan Yandim Aydin and Prof. Luca Zavagno’s Byzantium at Ankara seminar series in a session titled “Famine and Plagues in Byzantium: archaeology, documentary and hagiography in a comparative perspective.”

I have to admit to feeling more than a little nervous about the topic which is pretty far from my core area of expertise (however narrow that might be). I’ve spend the last few days reviewing some of the key works on the topic of plague and famine, and I have to admit that it’s been a nice break from my other simmering projects.

While I’m not planning to present a formal paper, it’s useful for me to get my ideas together. For the following observations, I’m indebted to the crowd-sourced “Archaeology of Epidemics” syllabus.

It seems to me that the archaeology of plagues and famines recognizes the long-standing ties between disease and sedentary agriculture. The latter tends to be a precondition for  historical understandings of famine (although famines are, of course, possible among hunter-gatherers, many of the preconditions for famine appear to be more prominent among settled agrarians than more mobile hunter-gatherers). More than that, settled agriculture increased human proximity to animals, to one another, and to human waste and distinct environmental conditions which undoubtedly contributed to an increase rates of infectious diseases. Settled agriculture is obviously case in the Later Roman and Byzantine Empires as were a series of epidemics (that verge on being pandemics) starting in the late 2nd century and continuing through the middle-8th century.

The second basic idea for any consideration of plagues and famines in the past is that both phenomena are incredibly complex and generally the result of multiple variable. Diseases, for example, can vary not only on the biological level. Yeresinia Pestis, for example, is a bacteria transmitted primarily by rats and humans; Malaria, as another example, is an amoeba transmitted by a limited number of types of mosquitos. Cholera and Typhoid are primarily transmitted through contaminated water (and food). The range of different kinds of diseases, therefore, impacts the ways in which diseases spread, take hold, and impact mortality.

Famines likewise represent a series of conditions that range from weather and climate to economic and political decisions. Famine often results in malnutrition and compromised immune systems that can produce not only a greater susceptibility to  The relationship between famine and disease then requires that we consider not only politics, ecology, economics, and environmental conditions, but also the distinctive character of the diseases moving through the human population.

The archaeology of plague and famine in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Mediterranean has its own unique characteristics as well. There are four major trends, I think, in how archaeologists have approached these phenomena.

1. Bioarchaeology. Certainly the most sensational efforts to understand disease in the ancient world have come from bioarchaeologists. The publication of evidence for Yersinia Pestis (the Bubonic Plague) in dental pulp DNA samples from two 6th century cemeteries in Bavaria has added weight to hypothesis that the Justinianic plague was, indeed, the Bubonic plague, although as a few commentators have noted, 10 individuals with the plague in a rather remote region hardly represents a meaningful sample of the Mediterranean population at the time.

The challenges facing bioarchaeology involve not only the still-developing technologies necessary to analyze human skeletal remains at the scale necessary to produce a sufficiently significant body of evidence to allow for large scale conclusions. More than that, only certain kinds of diseases leave recognizable traces in human remains. Tuberculosis, for example, leaves tell-tale lesions on bones, but other illnesses like malaria are more elusive meaning that our view of epidemics illnesses in the ancient world will likely remain uneven for the time.

2. Climate and Environmental Archaeology. The second major trend in understanding plagues and famines in Late Antiquity is the growing interest in ancient climate change and the role of climate and the environment in creating conditions favorable with the development of epidemic and pandemic outbreaks of disease. The most thorough version of this approach is Kyle Harper’s 2017 book  The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017)  or the recent volume of the Late Antique Archaeology series dedicated to Environment and Society in the Long Late Antiquity (Brill 2018).

Harper and others have sought to understand the appearance of pandemic scale diseases in the late 2nd century, starting with the Antonine plague, and continuing through to the Justinian’s plague. Harper argues that end of the Roman Climate Optimum and the start of the Late Antique Ice Age (and the Late Antique Little Ice Age) may have created environmental conditions suitable for spread of new diseases in the Mediterranean basin. Harper and other scholars who have emphasized that large scale climate change is not an explanation in and of itself, but the impact of these changes must be understood in the context of both local environmental conditions and the larger political and social world of Late Antiquity. There is little doubt however that changes in global climate triggered changes in the agricultural regimes that contributed to “years without summer” and subsequent famines that are known from literary sources. The wide ranging debate around the “The Mystery Cloud of 536 CE” and its connection to the Justinianic plague is only one such example.

As any number of scholars have shown in recent years, for example the work done by Haldon, Elton and Newhart have done in Anatolia, regional variation in the environment plays a significant role in understand the impact of climate change at the local level. Sturt Manning has recently made clear the significant inter-annual variations in rain fall on Cyprus, which may have had as much of an impact on the health and prosperity of communities than large scale climate variation on the global level. Roman efforts to drain swamps, build roads, and deforest hills would have introduced new hydrological patterns that would have supported, for example, the mosquitos that carried malaria, as Robert Sallares has shown in his work. Bret Shaw has argued on the basis of epigraphic data from across the Mediterranean that there are clear seasonal patterns of mortality. The wide range of variables that contribute to these patterns include local weather during the hotter and more humid late summer months whose impact on the mortality of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis remains difficult to assess.

Environmental archaeology has also shed valuable light on global conditions that could have disrupted plague foci in, for example, rodent colonies in Central Asia or East Africa which would have dispatched plague bearing fleas to the Mediterranean through established trade routes in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Understanding these phenomena, of course, is extremely complex and we’re only at the very beginning of understand the existence of disease foci and their relationship to climate conditions. In fact, both of these things as independent variables remain difficult to understand much less in relation to one another.

That being said, a growing body of environmental proxies from Greenland ice cores to dendrochronology is beginning to allow us to map global climate change in antiquity. Unfortunately the chronological resolution and distribution of this data does not always coincide with the kinds of historical questions that Mediterranean archaeologists and historians are asking. Moreover, they do not always make the cause of climate variation clear and are often difficult to correlate with local conditions. This isn’t to say that this work is not producing meaningful results, but that the impact of climate science on our understanding of specific historical events like the Justinianic plaque continues to develop.

3. Archaeological Evidence. Michael McCormick, one of the leading scholars in the study of plagues in antiquity, has pulled together the evidence for mass burials in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period and published it in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. McCormick recognizes that these kinds of direct evidence for episodes of mass mortality may well provide indications of plague events and coincide with evidence from literary sources for mass burials.

The challenge, of course, is that the situation and dates of many of these mass burials remain unclear. In some cases, such as Kopetra on Cyprus, where a cistern becomes the tomb for at least 9 individuals, there is reason to at least suspect that these are people who died from disease. In other cases, like the Andritsa cave in Argolid, it’s more challenging to see the bodies of over 50 individuals as victims of the disease alone and might be better recognized as the result of a complex series of events that range from diseases and famine to regional political or military disruptions. As with efforts to understand the relationship between climate and disease, it seems likely that many of these burials represent the intersection of a series of conditions including the availability of a cave or a cistern for a mass burial. The analysis of the demographics of the individuals, when such data is available, and any chronological clustering of the incidents of mass burial likewise allow for a more refined interpretation of these events. McCormick shows that of the 48 mass burials datable to between 300 and 800, 36 of them occurred during the 6th and 7th century. That being said, the ongoing efforts to refine the dating of Late Roman ceramics, for example, may well complicate the chronology of these burials or at least complicate any clear correlation between events datable in the literary sources to a particular year or span and shifting archaeological chronologies.

4. Landscape, Settlement, and Demography. Finally, there has been a massive amount of attention on Late Roman settlement and demography over the last twenty years prompted in part by the rise in landscape and regional survey projects that have shed valuable light not only on rural settlement, but also on the relationship between city and country and between various regions in the Mediterranean basin.

On the most basic level questions of demography and settlement patterns provide a backdrop for the economic conditions present in the long Late Antiquity. As our understanding of the countryside, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, improves and reveals a “busy countryside” in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, traditional arguments for large scale demographic and economic decline have become less compelling. The neighborhood of the mass burial at Kopetra and the Andritsa cave in the Western Argolid appear to be active and even moderately prosperous with imported table wares, storage and transport amphora, and purpose made cooking pots appearing in urban and rural areas alike. Of course, this is not meant to suggest that plagues cannot strike economically prosperous communities or that they necessarily would have a negative impact on local economies, but to challenge views of the Late Antique landscape which saw conditions of decline and deprivation as particularly suitable for the outbreak of disease.

Instead, recent work has emphasized the ongoing connectivity of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and this connectivity goes well beyond well-known links between major urban centers or regions and now involves the myriad of small links that constituent the dense networks of small-scale and local exchange between microregions. These connections provided the Late Antique world with its remarkable resilience in times of political or environmental stress, and, at the same time, established the context for the spread of disease throughout the Later Roman world.

At present, our efforts to understand the character and extent of this connectivity in a nuanced way remains in its infancy. For example, we’re only now making strides to understand the countryside in the neighborhood of Adritsa Cave which in many ways shows remarkable continuity with earlier centuries. This makes it difficult to present even a local or regional context for this unusual site much less ascertain its place within larger regional trends.


If my contribution tomorrow does anything, I hope that I’m able to present a view of the archaeology of plagues and famines that provides some disciplinary context. This involves not only understanding the larger methodological trends that characterize research on these topics including bioarchaeology, environmental archaeology, excavations, and survey projects, but also emphasizes the epistemological and practical limits that shape archaeological discourse.

It’s cliche to note that the goal of archaeology is not necessarily to supplement the narratives established by historians and scholars of texts. In fact, archaeological evidence often remains oddly incompatible with these disciplines. Often the incommensurability stems from the different scales at which we operate. Even with the precisions of dendrochronology, most archaeological dates established through C14 dating or conventional ceramic typologies are more broad and imprecise than dates provided in texts.

As significantly, archaeologists sometimes work at the highly focused scale of a single site, part of a site, or trench, where evidence for phenomena like plagues may not be immediately visible. This situation means that even when archaeologists work at the scale of the region, we’re often forced to recognize that our inconsistent sample is better suited to understanding intraregional variation especially when considered at finer chronological resolutions.

Advances in bioarchaeological sampling are unlikely to resolve these issues quickly because of variability in discovery and preservation of human remains, the need to secure samples through particularly rigorous and time consuming excavation techniques that are not always possible, and the cost of analysis. The same holds true for many of the techniques that are producing important insights into regional environmental conditions that require specific situations (e.g. anaerobic lake beds), expertise, and funding that not all projects can access in the same way. The resulting patchworks, like the 10 individuals with the plague in Germany, will result in datasets that seemingly beg to be over generalized or dismissed as outliers especially in their relationship to particular environmental or epidemiological events.

Where archaeology shines is in providing evidence for long-term trends at the regional level and recognizing the ebb and flow of populations, prosperity, connectivity, and settlement. Plagues and famines while seemingly more common between the 3rd and 8th century often emerge as mere blips on the archaeological radar and soon disappear again the backdrop of persistent activity and the resilience of long-standing communities.

While this will likely disappoint historians who persist in their hope that archaeology or archaeological science can unlock the relationship between climate, disease, populations, economies, and politics, maybe it’ll be heartening in our contemporary situation where the COVIDs seem destined the fundamentally transform our everyday life. Viewed at the archaeological scale, it may be that The COVID pandemic will appear as little more than some discarded latex gloves and empty bottles of hand sanitizer.

Kephalari Blockhouse

I know that I’m not the first archaeologist to observe that without a field season this summer, we have theoretically more time to spend thinking carefully about our material and sites, tidying data, and preparing publications. This means, at least for me, trying to get some momentum on some lingering projects.

Two, in particular, are begging for attention. First, we have an almost complete draft of the publication of the area EF1 at Polis complete. In fact, I think we could have it ready for submission in two weeks.

More pressing at the moment, though, is a little article on the Late Roman finds from the Kephalari blockhouse in the Western Argolid. These finds were discovered in Corinth storerooms a few years ago and a group of us agreed to publish them. Of course, since that time lots of things have happened including WARP seasons, Polis stuff, a PKAP volume that’s not yet done, and The COVIDs. But this spring, the article received the ultimate motivating push: my colleague Scott Gallimore wrote up the catalogue and analysis of the finds.

So now it’s time that I do my part, which is writing up the “Discussion” section of the article. My goal is to offer a concise synthesis of 7th century settlement and rural insecurity in the northeastern Peloponnesus. It’s obviously a work in progress!


The assemblage from the Kephalari block house adds another small body of evidence to the increasingly complex mosaic of material from the later 6th, 7th, and early 8th century in the northeastern Peloponnesus. While the presence of material from the region’s significant urban centers, particularly Argos and Corinth, is well-known, archaeologists have only just begun to unpack and understand the situation in the countryside during these decades. The small number of excavated and well-published rural sites even in the well-studied northeastern Peloponnesus creates a particularly challenge for situating the reuse of the Kephalari blockhouse in its regional context. The growing number of stratified sequences, especially from Corinth, however, has made it increasingly possible to analyze the growing body of intensive survey data from this region from the end of antiquity. This, in turn, has offered new perspectives on a number of long-standing academic debates including changes in rural settlement patterns and urbanism, the character of the so-called “Slavic Invasions” of the late-6th century, and the presence of rural refuges such as the Andritsa cave.

Scholars have recognized that the reoccupation of rural sites, such as Pyrgouthi and the Kephalari block house appear to indicate significant investment in the adaptation of existing rural sites for reuse in the late 6th and 7th centuries. The appearance of window glass at Kephalari, for example, and the large-scale reconfiguration of the Pyrgouthi tower into a farmhouse with a courtyard suggests efforts to reoccupy these sites on a permanent basis. The evidence is less extensive from the other blockhouses and pyramids of the Argolid, but it appears that these sites were cleaned up with much of the material from earlier periods removed and the interior organization of the spaces modified with new walls and additions (Pettegrew 2006; Lord 1938; Scranton 1938).

Intensive survey has produced scatters of ceramics in the countryside that not only suggest that other Classical and Hellenistic sites experienced reoccupation in the Later Roman period, but that these sites were part of a larger reoccupation of the countryside. The site of Kastraki, for example, in the Inachos Valley, while unexcavated, may well be a similar site to Pyrgouthi or Kephalari in that it was a Classical or Hellenistic tower set atop a low rise in the valley bottom surrounded by a scatter of Late Roman material. The site of Any Vayia in the southeastern Corinthia likewise produced a low-density scatter suggesting a possible short-term reoccupation (Caraher et al. 2010) which found parallels elsewhere including on Euboea (Seifried and Parkinson 2014) and at the Vari House in Attica (Pettegrew 2006, p. 33).

Other smaller sites with material dating to the late-6th and 7th centuries exist throughout the Western Argolid survey area in the Inachos Valley and generally follow a pattern of settlement present in the 5th and 6th centuries. Athanasios Vionis and John Bintliff have argued for Late Antique Boeotia, urban and rural sites represent opposite sides of the same coin (Vionis 2017; Bintliff 2013). The persistence of sites in the countryside and even the expansion of activities into places like near coastal islands reflects the expansive use of diverse rural landscapes for agricultural purposes as well as nodes in regions and Mediterranean wide trade networks (Gregory 1984; 1995).

Urban sites continued to provide markets for rural agriculture, points of contact with larger imperial command economy, centers for manufacturing, and ecclesiastical and a certain amount of political authority. While the Finleyan concept of the “consumer city” should be laid to rest, work at Corinth (Sanders; Rothaus; Brown), Athens (Hayes), and Argos (Oikonomou-Laniado 2003) and in Boeotia (Bintliff, Vionis) have demonstrated that urban areas in Late Antiquity continued to serve as key places in Greece into the 7th century with continued investment in monumental architecture, urban amenities, and public spaces fortified in part by the growing spiritual, political, and economic role of urban bishops and the persistent reach of the imperial government.

This is not to suggest that the 7th century was not a period of significant disruption in southern Greece. Urban areas clearly experienced contraction and settlement in rural areas and this is visible in the larger WARP survey area as well as in urban surveys in Boeotia. The changes in rural settlement, including the emergence of fortified settlements in the countryside, seem to accompany continued economic activity in rural areas. While the evidence for such sites in the Argolid remains limited — the site of Kastro near the village of Tsiristra being a possible exception — the reoccupation of places like the Kephalari block house may well represent the need for both additional security and as well as continued economic viability in the countryside (Vionis 155-157). The reoccupation of fortifiable, if not necessarily fortified, sites in the Argolid may also shed light on the status of sites like the Andritsa Cave. If continued occupation of the countryside indicated the continued viability of markets and networks open to agricultural production and the fortified sites not only in Greece but across the wider Eastern Mediterranean reflects larger insecurity in the region, then places like the Andritsa Cave may well reflect the local realities of both rural wealth and instability. The so-called isles of refuge first recognized by Sinclair Hood and critiqued by Tim Gregory in the 1980s and 1990s, may also reflect the same effort to reconcile economic potential with the need for added security during unstable times.

Plague and the End of Antiquity

This weekend, I read Kyle Harper’s new-ish book on plague, climate change, and the end of the Roman Empire: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017). I have to admit that I was skeptical before I read the book. The idea that plague contributed to the end of the Roman Empire isn’t particularly novel and the plagues of the 2nd and 3rd century have sometimes been clumsily associated with the rise of Christianity. Our growing understanding of ancient diseases and the physical condition of individuals and communities in Late Antiquity clearly has something to offer the historian, but linking the patchy evidence to Mediterranean wide geopolitics always seemed like a stretch. Finally, as readers of this blog probably discern, I’m intrigued by the recent “environmental turn” in Mediterranean archaeology, but also have lingering concerns that our interest in the ancient and modern climate has pushed us toward a new kind of environmental determinism

Despite this skepticism, Harper’s book was really good and compelling. First, this book is far from a single cause argument (as one might expect it would be considering Harper’s other work and reputation). The plague is set against a careful reading of climate change over the course of the first millennium and the political, economic, and demographic developments of the Roman world. Second, the plagues unleashed in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries were not simply more virulent versions of illnesses that had long existed in the human population, but new diseases – small pox and bubonic plague – whose impact on the Roman world depended upon both the political organization of the connected Mediterranean and the emergence of a more variable and challenging late Holocene climate regime. Finally, the book is really well written and, in turn, evocative and clearly argued, descriptive and analytical, illuminated by literary sources and grounded in archaeological evidence. 

I do wonder, though, whether framing the book as a conflict between humans and nature creates a view of the world that seems to challenge the books basic argument that the rise of the Roman mega-state was partly the result of the auspicious middle Holocene climate. It seems to me a more compelling way to discuss humans, climate, their environment, and the microbial world of bacteria and viruses that shaped the human experience in the ancient Mediterranean would be as deeply enmeshed and entangled. In fact, the helplessness articulated by so many ancient authors when faced with draught, plague, floods, and cold, speaks less to a view of existence as a battle with the forces of nature and more to an understanding of humans and nature as parallel manifestations the same cosmic and divine forces. The changes to the environment, the appearance of plagues, and unpredictable and unexpected weather formed part of the same universe that preserved the Roman Empire, the structured religion and belief, and that defined the physical health of individual bodies. For example, the end of the world was seen as the world growing old and drying out – quite literally with the arrival of droughts in some places – and it had a clear parallel in the view of old age that saw it as the drying out of the body.

That being said, the view of the human world as separate and in conflict with nature gave the book its tragic arc. Harper makes no attempt to hide his view that the Roman Empire was more than simply an administrative unit, but the fundamental framework for life in the first century Mediterranean. As a result, the collapse of the Roman state – particularly in the western Mediterranean, but ultimately in the east as well – marked more than just a political disruption, but a fundamental social and cultural one as well. The experience of individuals, then, paralleled the larger political narrative. This is compelling when the book documents the personal and community trauma associated with the plague.

It’s less compelling, though, in dealing with ragged edges of how communities experienced the Roman Mediterranean. For example, it’s become increasingly apparent that in the Eastern Mediterranean communities continued to enjoy connections that defied changing political boundaries. In other words, social and economic bonds persisted for centuries in some cases after the political life of the Roman Empire collapsed. It would appear, in these cases, that the Roman state – with its political, military, and economic challenges brought on by changes in the climate and plague – was more fragile than the centuries old social, religious, and cultural bonds between communities around the Mediterranean littoral. The persistence of these bonds played a key role in understanding the end of antiquity as a transformation rather than a decline or fall. 

This critique is, in the end, fairly minor and probably can be categorized as “I’d write a different book,” and shouldn’t detract from the larger value of this book. Works like this demonstrate the incredible potential of the environmental turn for revising even the most traditional narratives in our field. 

More Late Antiquity (or at least a start)

For the last week or so, I’ve been trying to get back into the academic groove and thinking about Late Antiquity. I have done some reading and, more importantly, some writing about the 7th century both in Greece and on Cyprus. Mostly, I’m working to get a first draft of a paper documenting and analyzing a 7th century site in the Western Argolid.

Here is the first draft of the first couple paragraphs. It’s rough, lacks citations, and I’m sure it’ll change, but at least it’s going somewhere.

The past two decades have witnessed a major change in how archaeologists understand the Late Roman and Early Medieval landscape of Greece. The rise of survey archaeology in the late-20th century fueled the growing awareness of the “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity. This complemented work in urban areas across Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly demonstrating that Late Roman cities and their countrysides experienced continued prosperity, social vitality, and political and economic significance into the 5th and 6th centuries. For Greece, scholars argued that the Slavic invasions of the late-6th century brought an end to this Late Antique prosperity and initiated a period of economic, political, and social dislocation often called the “Dark Ages.” Over the last 20 years, work at urban and rural sites has started to question this narrative. Work at the site of Corinth, in particular, has shown that the city continued to prosper into the 7th century. Moreover, imported ceramics and storage vessels indicate that Corinth enjoyed persistent connections across the Mediterranean even if these connections appear to be less dynamic and consistent then earlier centuries. At the same time, regional networks in the northeastern Peloponnesus emerged that supplied cooking and utility wares to communities well into the final third of the 7th century. The results from Corinth suggest that the city experienced economic change in the 7th century with fewer imports and a rise in regionally produced vessels, but this change was not the same as decline and indicated continuity with earlier centuries as much as new patters of economic and social relations.

Stratigraphic excavations formed the basis for this revised assessment of the 7th century in Greece. The assemblages produced through excavations at Corinth and at the Pyrgouthi Tower near Berbati in the Argolid, in particular, have helped to revise the dates of earlier excavation across Greece and challenged the assumption that destruction deposits associated with the Slavic invasions should have 6th century dates. Deposits from the Baths at Argos and the Stadium at Nemea, for example, now are better dated to the 7th century than to the later 6th century as their original excavators suggested. This revised chronology has also extended to our analysis of intensive survey assemblages. For example, pushing the date of certain well-know finewares into the late-6th and early-7th century Phocaean Ware 10C and the later forms of African Red Slip (105 and 106) illuminates areas of possible 7th century activity in the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey area (Pettegrew 2007, 777; Caraher 2014, 157-158). In other contexts, Chris Cloke’s study of the off-site material from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project has revealed a 7th century landscape with remarkable continuity with material from the 5th and 6th centuries. This article takes Cloke’s assessment of 7th-century landscape of the Nemea Valley and work at Corinth and considers it in the context of recent work in the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP).

Doing Late Antiquity

One of the funny things about expertise is that if you don’t practice being an expert on something, you begin not to be. Over the past few years, my interests have changed and my level of expertise has declined in general. I tend to see this as a good thing. My interest in the world is democratizing, but at times, I have nostalgia for the times when I knew enough to confidently critique a colleague’s argument or offer a nuanced understanding of a complicated problem.

Over the last few months, I’ve been quietly reading on Late Antiquity. I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that I am becoming an expert again, but it’s been fun to visit the Late Antique world, to write about, and to think about it again.

I’m just about finished reading Georgios Deligiannakis, The Dodecanese and East Aegean islands in late Antiquity, AD 300-700 (2016) in part because I’m preparing for a conference this fall on island archaeology and Byzantium and partly because I’m working on an article on the Western Argolid in the 7th century. Deligiannakis book includes both a useful gazetteer and a synthetic analysis of Late Antiquity in the Dodecanese with special attention to Rhodes and Kos.

The book is filled with useful observations and I’ll mention just two. First, he notes that the proliferation of churches on Rhodes where there are around 80 Early Christian basilica likely reflects changing practices in euergetism in the Christian community. Citing the work of Rudolf Haensch and Peter Baumann as well as the modest epigraphic record from churches in the Dodecanese,  he argues that Christian theology motivated more modest donors to churches and this expanded the resources available to both Christian communities and the emerging ecclesiastical elite. This is compelling to me. In fact, I made a similar argument – very quietly and without any confidence – in my dissertation

Deligiannakis pays particular attention to the 7th century. This is not only useful because I’m working on a paper on the 7th century (and have been a bit obsessed with it), but also because Deligiannakis goes to some length to demonstrate the issues with using coins to date deposits in the 6th and 7th centuries. On Cyprus, the tendency to date buildings and deposits by coins – rather than ceramics – has served to align archaeological evidence too neatly with literary sources, particularly on the impact of the Arab raids. This overlooks complicated issues like the supply of coins and their survival rates. On a larger scale, this practice tends to drag the dates for ceramics and sites (and destruction layers) earlier than the ceramics alone might suggest and to cluster diverse and diffuse events into periods well-represented numismatically. Thus, the reigns of Heraclius and Constans II tend to be overrepresented in archaeological narratives. Some of the buildings, deposits, and destruction (and construction) levels dated to the reigns of these two emperor should probably be dated later.

Now, off to actually write about Late Antiquity. I might not be an expert any more, but I’ve certainly forgotten enough to find it fascinating.